Andrew Scheer was a dark horse in the way-too-long, way-too-crowded race to become Conservative party leader. Now, the 38-year-old father of five is spending his summer trying to walk the talk on his leadership pitch to shape the Conservatives into a friendlier, more accessible party than the one Canadians turfed from power in the 2015 federal election. He glad-handed his way through his first Calgary Stampede and brought his family to Charlottetown for Canada Day. In July, while conducting multiple media interviews, he announced a “gender diverse” senior team for the House, and appointed former leadership rival Lisa Raitt as deputy leader.
Scheer (MP for Regina-Qu’appelle) is also keen to convince women — many of whom left the Conservatives in the last election — that his party will enact policies that benefit women and girls. Chatelaine‘s Sarah Boesveld sat down with Scheer at Big Crow BBQ in Toronto to grab a brewski and talk about women and politics, why he voted against M-103 and his bingeing habits (both Netflix and snacks-related).
A Conservative strategist I met at the leadership convention told me you’re a good guy to have a beer with. So here we are! What’s your beer?
This is pilsner, this is the Champagne of the Prairies.
In Ottawa you’re known as a nice guy, but you’re really a new guy to most Canadians. Who is Andrew Scheer?
I like to think I’m a nice guy. I try to be genuine in everything I do. I was born in Ottawa, I met my wife [Jill] when she was at the University of Ottawa, she’s from Regina. That’s what brought me out to Saskatchewan. We got married, started having kids. I got bit by the political bug early on. Not always easy when you’re in Grade 10, Grade 11, to wax eloquent about politics. I was probably on the nerdier end of the spectrum. One time I got asked if I was a nerd and I said “well if you did a Venn diagram between interests that nerds have and interests that I have, there’d be a lot of overlap.” That person pointed out that the term “Venn diagram” is pretty nerdy.
Women walked away from the party in the last election — you’ve been called ‘Stephen Harper with a smile.’ Why should women vote for you in 2019?
In 2015, there were a lot of people who left us or even voted for the first time to vote against us. I think what it comes down to is tone and how we speak to people. You mentioned women in particular — negative advertising, and mostly attacking the other parties without offering an aspirational tone ourselves — I think that’s what led to our defeat. So what I hope to connect with Canadians on is the proven Conservative policies that work, that saw us through the worst recession since World War II by getting back to balanced budgets, that grew the private sector and increased prosperity. That all works, but we have to package that in a way that resonates for all Canadians.
Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose said you’re committed to getting more women into politics. How, specifically, do you plan to do that?
I want to have a meaningful outreach program that gets strong, conservative-minded women who have a track record of success to bring all their talents and excitement to the party. I think there are a lot of unintentional barriers to entry for women in politics — for a lot of women who are balancing families with careers, a lot of things can be intimidating, like the amount of after-work hours that are required to go out and sell memberships and so on. The party has to send a signal. We believe very strongly that everything is arrived at on merit and that people are qualified for the positions that they have. But I think what the party can do is to show women, “here’s a path.”
You don’t believe in beating the woman drum as hard as the Liberals do.
I use my wife as a barometer on this – my wife is one of the most fem-… pro-women, strong…
You almost said feminist – are you a feminist?
What do you mean by that, though?
I think the core of that is to recognize the fundamental equality between men and women. There should be nothing closed to women by virtue of the fact that they’re women. There has to be this lens in public policy that realizes that. But yeah, my wife is most upset when it’s like, “Well, someone got to where they are not because they deserved it but just because they ticked the demographic box.” It’s Conservative solutions that actually provide for prosperity for women who want to advance in the workplace. We believe in the fundamental principles of equality and opportunity for women who try to have that work-life balance, we’re always trying to find ways to make that choice easier.
You’re pro-life, but say you won’t reopen the abortion debate. Why not?
There are a lot of different passionately held views on this issue across the spectrum, not just amongst Conservatives. Our party is the only party that allows people of different opinions to have a home, to have that conversation. As leader I think it’s imperative not to divide our own movement, our own caucus. So I think our party is better served by having a leader who focuses on issues we can all unite around.
So your daughters will grow up to be able to make the choice for themselves to do whatever they want with their own bodies.
To have a political party be the agent of change on this at this point in time, it’s not the right way to go. We need to focus instead on unifying issues. For example, raising the age of sexual consent from 14 to 16, which the previous Conservative government did — I’ve got three daughters, that didn’t speak to me as much then as it does now that they’re growing up.
What are you reading right now?
I read a lot of novels set in different periods of time that tell a historical story. I’m reading one right now called Wolf Hall which is about Tudor England.
How about TV — are you binge watching anything? The Handmaid’s Tale?
I think I read that in high school English class.
You should re-read it.
I have some guilty pleasures — my wife and I watched Breaking Bad, and then I got into Better Call Saul. I’m not usually one for horror genres, but I did kind of accidentally get into The Walking Dead. And so when I have time to go to the gym and try to work out, I sit on the bikes and watch an episode. It gets your heart racing.
You’re a father of five. Tell me what kind of Canada you want to see your kids grow up in.
One thing I feel very strongly about is when you look back to my parents and my grandparents’ generation, there was always this thought that you were leaving a better country for your kids. What I worry about with the current government is by racking up all this debt, leaving a better country isn’t a guarantee. The Canada I want my kids to inherit is one where there’s a clear path to prosperity, where hard work and determination are rewarded, where individual liberty is protected, where they have a vibrant, dynamic economy that offers them lots of opportunities to chase their dreams. That’s the economic argument.
What about more personally?
I want my kids to grow up in a safe neighbourhood that has a sense of community. It’s one of the things I love about Regina, and I’m sure it’s the case in a lot of areas of Canada, is a strong sense of community. My neighbours will call me in Ottawa and say, “Hey, you left your garage door open, tell me the code and I’ll go close it.”
People do that in Toronto, too, by the way.
That’s great! I like that. And obviously, an environment that passes on that natural wealth we’ve got — clean rivers, clean lakes, clean air. That’s kind of my three-pronged approach.
I saw a campaign video in which your son said popcorn is your favourite food. Really?
I have a bit of a popcorn problem — I can’t stop once I start. I love it. I love lots of it. If there was popcorn here right now, it’d be all over me. I’ve been known to drive to the movie theatre, walk in and buy a bag of popcorn and leave with it.
Where’d you take your wife for your first date?
First date was probably a pub we went to all the time in Ottawa when we were in university. Jill was very apolitical when we started dating and, early on, I had to go to Calgary for the leadership race between Preston Manning and Stockwell Day . . . So on one of our first dates, she found herself standing on a chair, hoisting a sign, chanting “Preston! Preston! Preston!”
Wow, that’s a good woman.
Well, our honeymoon was the spa in Moose Jaw.
You voted against M-103, a motion calling on federal politicians to condemn Islamophobia, which was ultimately passed in the house. Tell me why.
I’ve read a lot and heard a lot of concerns that the term Islamophobia can be used as a catch all, to capture not just those who discriminate unjustly against people because of their faith — which I condemn, and the entire Conservative caucus condemns people being discriminated against because of their faith — but also as used as a way to stamp out or stifle legitimate criticism of different interpretations of Islam, on the more radical side… The problem with the motion is, it wasn’t just an expression of a position — it also triggered action. It was calling on the government to turn the wheels of government towards addressing this. That’s where I thought, ‘We don’t know what’s going to come out at the end of that — if it’s not well defined on the front end, who knows what can come out on the back end.’ Even the preamble of the motion talked about how Canada’s increasingly become a culture of fear.
You don’t think so?
There are incidents — no society is perfect, no country is perfect. But Canada is a stable, peaceful country. The fear-mongering aspect, I thought, was over the top. Yes, there are communities, especially in urban centres, where there are recent immigrants … different parts of Canada may not be as welcoming as we’d like them to be. So yes, there are incidents. But in general, Canada is a wonderful, peaceful place where people have fundamental rights we need to protect.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.